A Critique of New Covenant Theology

Jim Gunn

But great men can make great errors

To Whomever:

Back in July 2002 I first became aware of New Covenant Theology {NCT} through a series of articles in the “Sound of Grace”, John G. Reisinger, Editor. My initial reaction was as the Athenians in Acts 17:19, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak?” After an initial investigation my reaction to the idea of God abrogating or materially changing the Ten Commandments was negative. However, there was a seemingly compelling argument being made for NCT, specifically the “law of Christ.” What moved me to greater interest in NCT was that a fellow elder in our local Baptist church [we have plurality and equality of elders] said that he had been a follower of NCT for many years. Because of a serious difference in the interpretation of the Word of God regarding the Ten Commandments it was necessary for me to do a more in-depth study.

Following the example of the fair-minded in Berea who “…searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so,” {Acts 17:11} I began to accumulate and study NCT material. Books and tapes that I have studied are listed at the end of this paper.

In an honest quest for the truth regarding New Covenant Theology as propounded by John G. Reisinger, Tom Wells, Fred Zaspel, et al, I am now convinced that they have little “new” to offer. This opinion is based on an assimilation of all of the material that I have studied to date.

There is much that NCT argues for that I do wholeheartedly support, viz., the progressive nature of divine revelation until the completion of the NT; the primacy of the NT over the OT; and the preeminence of Jesus Christ over everything. However, these tenets of NCT did not originate with NCT.

New Covenant Theology opposes ‘Covenant Theology’ and ‘Dispensationalism.’ If NCT defines Covenant Theology as Presbyterianism, so be it and so do I oppose any notion of a ‘covenant’ made by God with children of believing parents. However, NCT seems to oppose the idea of a ‘Covenant of Grace’ that transcends human history.

Dispensationalism is fairly well understood although it now is a moving target. As I understand Dispensationalism, and I have studied it extensively, it is an untenable eschatology. Essential to Dispensationalism is the separation of Israel and the Church forever, the priority of the OT over the NT in interpreting prophecy, and a focus on the Jews because they are Jews. God, as the teaching goes, will have respect to a people because of their birth certificates. But this is also the major weakness of every form of eschatology that teaches that there is yet to be an eschatological national Israel.

But if NCT is opposing the continuity of the Ten Commandments {TC} into the NT then I do not agree. Are the Ten Commandments used of God in the NT present age or are they abrogated or materially changed? Have the TC been replaced by the “law of Christ”?

The law. One of my main sticking points with NCT, as I studied its various materials, is their argument that the “law of Christ” has abrogated or materially changed the Ten Commandments. This also is not an original or a new interpretation by the proponents of NCT as to the continuity or lack thereof of the Ten Commandments into the NT.

The Sabbath is usually brought up as the ‘proof’ that God has materially changed His law. Because of a change in the observance of the Sabbath, NCT extrapolates that to the other nine commandments. However, there are good explanations for the transition of the Hebrew seventh day Sabbath to the Christian observance of Sunday.

When Jesus said that He was the Lord also of the Sabbath He meant the OT commandment and taught that it was the spirit of the commandment and not the letter of the commandment that mattered. So did the spirit of the law of the Sabbath change in the NT? If not, did the spirit of the other nine Commandments change?

My understanding of the Ten Commandments is that God gave Moses this “moral law” that was already written on the hearts of all men and in doing so specific sins are made known. E.g., Cain knew it was wrong to murder a good while before the 6th commandment was given to Moses. But now there is a written law that says do not murder!

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, did not abrogate nor materially change the law; He explained the spiritual nature of the law as it was intended. Of course Jesus is the fulfillment of the law but the law has not been abrogated or materially changed in its purpose. The purpose of the law is to give the knowledge of sin, conviction of sin and condemnation under the holy law of God, and by grace, to lead someone to Christ. The law was never intended as a way of justification. In other words the so-called ‘Covenant of Works’ was not new to Moses and was not ever intended as a way of justification.

At the Southern Baptist Founders Conference, July 2002, I asked Dr. Tom Nettles if he knew about NCT. He did not offer much in the way of a definition. Admittedly, the conference schedule was tight and now having some appreciation of the difficulty of understanding precisely what NCT is teaching, it is my opinion that Tom did not want to entertain a lengthy discussion between conference sessions. That was one of the reasons I asked Tom to come to Vineland Park Baptist Church to conduct a seminar on NCT. We have not been able to arrange such a visit but I am still hopeful that it will materialize. At the time [July 2002] I asked Tom about NCT I did not know that Tom had written an introduction in the book, New Covenant Theology, by Wells and Zaspel.

In fact both Dr. Tom Nettles and Dr. Don Carson wrote a plea for understanding in the book, New Covenant Theology. It does not seem to me that either Nettles or Carson are endorsing NCT; they are only saying that it should be considered. I sincerely hope that this critique is made and will be received in the spirit of the admonitions given by Nettles and Carson.

Dr. Carson was the featured speaker at the Beeson Pastors School in July 2002. After he spoke there I asked Dr. Carson about NCT and he referred me to the 2002 John Bunyan Conference on NCT. I subsequently purchased the tapes of that conference and have listened to them. In a Q & A session at the 2002 John Bunyan Conference on NCT, John Reisinger states that NCT, in effect, equates the old covenant with the Ten Commandments.

Having just read [November 18, 2004] A Reformed Baptist Manifesto, Samuel E. Waldron with Richard C. Barcellos, I learned that John Reisinger no longer holds this view, i.e., the Ten Commandments equates to the Old Covenant.

Dr. Carson spoke at the 2002 John Bunyan Conference on NCT. Carson preached from Hebrews on how the priesthood of Christ after the order of Melchizedek is superior to the Aaronic priesthood and he [Carson] is faultless.

In these sermons on the priesthood of Christ I did not infer that Dr. Carson claims that Christ abrogated the Ten Commandments. The law system and priesthood were all pointing to Christ and are fulfilled in Christ, but that does not mean that the TC do not remain in their original intent and purpose.

Dr. Carson spoke at the 2003 Southern Baptist Founders Conference in Birmingham. In his sermon on Matthew 5:17 ff he explained that “fulfill” is used in the prophetic sense as Matthew frequently uses the term. I did not infer from this message that Carson is saying that Jesus abrogated or materially changed the Ten Commandments.

After the lunch break on July 17, 2003 I had the opportunity to again ask Dr. Carson about NCT. He graciously agreed to discuss the matter with me. I asked Dr. Carson about John Reisinger’s statement that the Ten Commandments had been abrogated. Carson said that Reisinger did not mean that the Ten Commandments are absolutely done away with but rather the ‘Covenant of Works’, which includes the Ten Commandments.

Carson said there is continuity of the Ten Commandments into the New Testament. He also said there is the question of the Sabbath.

Does not the spiritual implication of all of the commandments carry over into the NT?

Joseph knew adultery was a sin against God before God gave that commandment to Moses. Of course we should not commit adultery but neither should we look on a woman to lust. If I can break the commandment on adultery in my spirit is it possible that I can keep the Sabbath in the spirit of that commandment by remembering my Creator, resting in Christ, and attending to worship with the church?

In all of the NCT material that I have read it seems to me that very little attention is given to Romans and Galatians. They do not offer much in the way of exposition of the texts in Romans and Galatians that specifically deal with the continuity of the Ten Commandments into this present age.

If I understand Paul’s arguments in Romans, the Ten Commandments are still serving their intended purpose.

If, however, your view of the purpose of the law in any way relates to justification then the law must be made void. But that is exactly what Paul says has not been done in Romans 3:31. “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.” Paul is clearly referring to the law in the OT Scriptures in Romans and Galatians and not to the “law of Christ” in the NT.

In Romans 7:7 it is the 10th Commandment [Do not covet], which I believe embodies the other nine commandments, which God used to show Paul the spiritual nature of the law.

In Romans 13:9 Paul quotes five of the TC, which must mean they are still being used for their intended purpose, viz. to give the knowledge of sin.

As a Pharisee and a doctor of the law Paul could have written a book on covetousness and it would have been technically correct. But Paul did not know that he was personally covetous until the Holy Spirit applied the spirit of the law {TC} to his heart.

In my opinion, NCT does not adequately deal with the teaching of Paul on the law in Romans and Galatians. The ‘law’ as Paul uses the term is sometimes the entire OT economy, but in Romans 7:7 it is the 10th Commandment.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached and wrote about the Mosaic covenant in 1952.

    “Now I want to emphasise that the making of this subsidiary covenant with Moses on behalf of the children of Israel at Sinai in no way whatsoever interfered with the covenant of grace that had already been given to Abraham, and that had previously been hinted at in the Garden of Eden. Now let me explain that, because there are some people who regard this as an entirely new covenant. But it was not; and I can prove it in this way: in Romans 4:13 we read, ‘For the promise, that he should be heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.’ This is most important. Listen again to Galatians 3:17: ‘And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.’ In other words, Paul’s great argument in Romans and Galatians is that the subsidiary covenant made with Moses at Mount Sinai, did not interfere to the slightest with the great covenant of promise and of grace that God made with Abraham.”

    God the Father, God the Son, Crossway Books, 1996, page 232.

The Gospel.

When the book New Covenant Theology {page 31} deals with the gospel preached to Abraham it says that it was not “the gospel” but the “promise of the gospel” whatever that might mean?

On this same page, referring to Romans 1:2, it states, “Paul looks on the gospel as “promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures” plainly implying that it had not yet come in OT times.”

Pardon me, but if a man cannot find the gospel in the OT it is because he does not know the gospel. In Romans, Paul uses the OT to preach the Gospel because the Gospel is not a NT innovation, or God’s “Plan B.” Please study carefully Romans 16:25-27 and see if it can mean anything other than the gospel itself is in the “prophetic Scriptures”?

Furthermore, Paul uses Abraham as the paradigm of justification by faith in Galatians and in Romans and whatever it was that Abraham believed is the gospel. Do we have a complete record of what exactly God revealed to Abraham? Paul says he had the Gospel. No one believes that Abraham had all the details about Jesus of Nazareth but he believed the Gospel. “Your father Abraham,” said Jesus, “rejoiced to see My day and he saw it, and was glad.”

What Abraham saw was Substitution in a sufficient Savior {Genesis 22:13}.

Of course everything related to Jesus the Christ in the OT is in some way a ‘promise’.

Until the atonement was actually made there was ‘promise’. But what Abraham believed by faith was accounted to him as righteousness. We may have more facts than did Abraham but we do not believe a different Gospel than Abraham believed.

Paul begins Romans by claiming that the ‘gospel of God’ is taken from the Old Testament Scriptures. There is only one Gospel and only one covenant of grace. There is no ‘new covenant’ if you mean by that term that it only occurs after the advent of Jesus Christ into the world. If that is not what NCT is saying then what is it that is ‘new’ in their theology? God’s children were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world and in time they are called and justified by faith: The same faith that justified Abraham or Paul’s use of Abraham as the father of the faithful fails.

The NCT treatment of Jeremiah 31:31ff does not seem to allow for the ‘new covenant’ to mean regeneration in the OT. NCT seems to say that what is ‘new’ is ‘new’ in time. My understanding of Jeremiah 31:31 ff is that what is ‘new’ is the revelation of Christ. What is ‘new’ is not ‘new’ in its origin but in its application to individuals. Go back to Paul in Romans 7:7 and ask to what ‘law of Christ’ is Paul referring?

Dr. Tiberius Rata {Beeson Divinity School} “Is the New Covenant Brand New or Renewed?” argues that ‘new’ in Jeremiah 31:31ff means ‘renewed’ and not ‘brand new’. Other scholars take issue with this definition of ‘new.’

Do not think that I am in any way diminishing the ‘law of Christ.’ But the ‘law of Moses’ is as much the ‘law of Christ’ as anything written in the NT. The question is the administration and application of ‘the law.’ Jesus is not opposing Moses because Moses wrote about Christ and if you believe Moses you will believe Christ. The problem with the Pharisees was that they did not believe Moses and therefore would not believe Christ.

Part of the confusion, at least in my experience, that is introduced by NCT is over the practice of the church and the application of regeneration before the institution of the visible church. I believe the church as practiced in the NT began at Pentecost.

But regeneration, which puts one into the true Church, is the same in the OT and in the NT. Otherwise, how could Jesus expect Nicodemus to understand regeneration unless Jeremiah and Ezekiel and other OT prophets wrote about it? That is not to say the prophets themselves understood everything they wrote.

Jude 3 refers to our “common salvation” which I take to be regeneration, the faith “which was once for all delivered to the saints,” before the NT was completed.

The ‘new covenant’ in Jeremiah is as old as God and becomes ‘new’ as the Holy Spirit applies the law to the heart and in grace regenerates the dead sinner.

Therefore I have about satisfied my mind that NCT is seriously flawed. I was nearly daunted by the scholarship of Wells, et al. “Who am I?” I thought.

But great men can make great errors.

Providentially, as I mentioned, I had an opportunity to speak briefly with both Dr. Don Carson and Dr. Tom Nettles at the 2003 Southern Baptist Founders Conference. If my assessment of NCT is even close to being accurate then it does not seem to me that either Carson or Nettles are wholly in the NCT camp. They have friends in Christ in the NCT camp but when I asked them both questions along the line of this critique they did not disagree but rather affirmed my doubts. To be fair they did not have this critique or the time to explain their views in much detail. If I have misrepresented Carson or Nettles it is only because of the limited time we had to discuss this matter.

The sticking points for me with NCT are the abrogation or any material change of the Ten Commandments and the Gospel preached to Abraham. If I have misrepresented NCT then please correct me.

Providentially, and not at my instance, NCT came up at dinner on July 16, 2003 in a discussion between Dr. John Thornbury and Dr. Emil Bartos. I was present and offered to send them my critique on NCT. Since I discussed this matter with both Dr. Don Carson, and Dr. Tom Nettles and refer to their comments in this critique I sent this paper to them.

{I have not received a reply from either of them as of March 17, 2007.}


The materials that I have studied on NCT:

    A Series of articles on NCT in the “Sound of Grace”, John G. Reisinger.

    Christ: Lord and Lawgiver over the Church, John G. Reisinger,

    published in 1998.

    In Defense of the Decalogue: A Critique of New Covenant Theology,

    Richard C. Barcellos, published in 2001.

    The Place of the Law in a Grace-Filled Life, lecture by Dr. Frank Thielman.

    New Covenant Theology, Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, published in 2002.

    Critique of Dispensationalism, lecture series: “Doctrine of the Last Things,” given at Beeson Divinity School, circa 1998, by Dr. Paul Basden.

    A paper by “Dave NSBC” on New Covenant Theology.

    “The New Covenant,” The Gatepost, Parts I, II, III, IV, by H. Conrad Murrell, 2002-2003.

    God the Father, God the Son {Chapters 19-20-21 on covenants};

    Martyn Lloyd-Jones, published in 1996 preached in 1952-1955.

    God’s Ten Words: A commentary on the Ten Commandments, Buddy Hanson, published in 2002.

    Tapes; 2002 John Bunyan Conference on NCT,

    Tom Wells, Fred Zaspel, Don Carson, et al.

    The Law and the Gospel, Ernest C. Reisinger, published in 1997.

    Tape; Is the New Covenant Brand New or Renewed? Tiberias Rata, Beeson Pastors School, July 2003

    Romans, The Law: Its Functions and Limits, Exposition of Chapters 7:1-8:4, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Zondervan, 1973

    Galatians, Timothy George, Broadman, 1994

    Whatever Happened to the TEN COMMANDMENTS? Ernest C. Reisinger, published in 1999.

    The Israel of God, O. Palmer Robertson, published in 2000

    The Baptism of Disciples Alone, Fred Malone, published in 2003 [covenants]

    The Perpetuity of the Law of God, Charles Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, No. 1660, May 21, 1882

A Reformed Baptist Manifesto,

    The New Covenant Constitution of the Church, Samuel E. Waldron with Richard C. Barcellos, Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2004

    JOHN OWEN AND NEW COVENANT THEOLOGY:

    Owen on the Old and New Covenants and the Functions of the Decalogue in Redemptive History in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

    Richard C. Barcellos*

    Eschatological Fulfillment and the Confirmation of Mosaic Law

    (A Response to D. A. Carson and Fred Zaspel on Matthew 5:17-48)

    By Greg Welty

A Response to Mike Adams's "In Defense of the New Covenant"

by Greg Welty

Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ, Nehemiah Coxe & John Owen;

Reformed Baptist Academic Press 2005

Pastor Jim Gunn

Vineland Park Baptist Church

Sunrise Blvd. & 20th Street

Hueytown, Alabama 35023

jgunn@bham.rr.com

www.vinelandparkbaptist.org

www.allbygrace.com

vpbc2@Charter.net

Original: August 16, 2003

Updated: November 23, 2005

Updated: March 17, 2007